Más o menos, todavía no sé (basically: I still have no clue)

Aishetu’s Great Quandary

About a year ago, I realized I was scared to exist in a world where I was an executive that didn’t engage deeply beyond the realm of banking and finance. While I focused on financing transactions benefiting infrastructure development, private equity acquisitions, portfolio company recapitalizations, and large strategic corporate clients, I never came close to embracing the rollercoaster of actual operations and I was becoming increasingly curious to explore this as an avenue.

Curiosity is the beginning of great things.

I started a side-hustle project called African HERstory where I filmed some pretty amazing women who currently live in and are developing businesses and brands on the continent. I was excited to create content that would appeal to a demographic that wanted to see visual storytelling that they could relate to. It turned out that people liked the content and that gave me quite a bit of satisfaction and piqued my curiosity bug even further.

How much more with my life could I be doing beyond M&A and financings?

Over the last decade, having relocated from New York City where I was a iBanker at Lehman Brothers (I moved to Morgan Stanley about a month before THE bankruptcy), I had been living in Nigeria and I was starting to think that I needed a different perspective in order to give my curiosity the fertile ground from which it would soar. Once this idea took footing in my head, the rest was history. Over a series of months, I applied to Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute, was accepted, quit my job as head of investment banking for West Africa at a South African bank, began my sabbatical and relocated to Palo Alto, California in search of a new adventure!

Stanford University wasn’t selected by mistake. It was evident to me that in leaving Nigeria at the ripe age of 41 with a husband by my side (thank you ngozi) and three children in tow, I’d have to make this crazy adventure worth it somehow. I had to convince myself that the move was strategic in nature and where else could I go to truly experience the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Silicon Valley, of course. The digital/technology sector seemed to be rolling its way through the Nigerian and broader African business terrain with varying degrees of success but high levels of excitement. Given my work with African HERstory, perhaps I could learn more about emerging media technology platforms and explore a monetization strategy after all. How does AI, VR, AR even work and what are the applications that are primed for 2018 and not 2035?

I wanted to start to open the kimono on what I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

To be honest, I was a tad nervous. Actually more than a tad. Several of the people that I followed on Twitter in the tech sector were young and used technical terms that flew right over my head! How would I, a little older than the average age at some of these big tech firms, fit into this teeming population of accomplished folks in the Valley? I “gathered myself,” as we say in Nigeria, and came anyhow.

Adjusting to living in Palo Alto hasn’t come easy! Not only is it possibly the most expensive place I’ve ever lived (I’ve lived in Lagos, Johannesburg, London, New York, Chicago, and Abuja), everything is different from Lagos. Literally everything. Case in point: I showed up to a “Mom & Sons” dance the other night with the boys and was woefully overdressed. Yikes! I was too embarrassed to remove my coat until I started sweating and “rolled with it.” Everyone here is so chilled o! Umm, I’m not in Lagos anymore so I need to perhaps dial down the bling. Or not.

Being a student again has been hard. I didn’t understand how to add courses on the enrollment system and I couldn’t get my head around doing homework just because someone says you should. My instincts kept telling me that my written papers were IP and they should perhaps be paid for! The volume of academic work alongside minding three young children — ages 3, 5, and 8 — was positively daunting. My husband runs a business in Nigeria (Paylater) and was keeping a foot in both locations, which means that when he wasn’t here I sometimes felt like I was drowning. I admit that I even cried myself to sleep one day because I was just too overwhelmed with everything that was happening at once! Things have gotten a lot better and I am learning to just take everyday as it comes. I’m starting to breathe again.

Andrew Alli encouraged me to find the d.school as soon as I got here and I must say a big THANK YOU to him. The pedagogy and the instructors are sharp, sharp, sharp! They’ve already made the sabbatical sojourn worth it. Well, that’s hyperbole but you get my point. I’m a true believer in design thinking and I’m hoping to take classes there every term while at Stanford. I’m taking a bunch of other classes such as Media Entrepreneurship (at the business school), the Spirit of Entrepreneurship, and, Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders. The content of every single class and the instructors have been well worth the exhaustion, anxiety, and $60 pizza orders (gulp!)

“You’re 41? You and I aren’t going to be friends. I came to Stanford to make friends with people my age (referring to people in the 55+ category most likely)”
“I thought this program was for distinguished and old people!”
“You won’t understand, you’re just a baby.”
“I like this role for you, you’re so young and a woman too.”

These are just some of the things that have been said to me in the six weeks that I’ve been a fellow at Stanford University. I have the unique distinction of being the youngest ever person to be admitted to my fellowship. Almost feels like I’m in Nigeria again where “elders” weaponize age and use it to silence, demoralize, separate, and discourage. I guess Dorothy is still in Kansas after all.

One of the main areas of confusion and worry for my friends and family back home was my decision to relocate to the US in this Trump era. People are increasingly saying and doing as they please with no repercussions. I admit that I was scared to move to the US. I’m still scared. I have three black little boys. Even though this is meant to be a very liberal area, I told my husband not to wear his hood up, EVER. I had never spoken to my children about race or any other “ism” for that matter. I had heart palpitations just thinking about the day that they would have to understand or deal with discrimination and I asked my friends in America for advice on how to deal with it. When you watch CNN in Nigeria, the media images and stories that you see are alarming and scary. I was so focused on “racism” and “sexism” (#MeToo and all the horror stories about sexism in Silicon Valley) that I didn’t know that what I didn’t know was that reverse-age discrimination is a thing. And not just in Africa where our leaders are all in their 70s-80s (although that is now changing.)

I’ve found every statement above to be hurtful but I’ve had to remind myself that hurt people, hurt people. Scared people, scare people. I wonder how much race, gender, and perceptions about class has to do with the boldness with which these statements were hurled at me. If I were Mark Zuckerberg, would you say that to me? Why is the default not to seek the common ground but to highlight the differences between ourselves? These and many more questions I hope to opine on during my year-long residency program at the Distinguished Careers Institute.

I’ll keep you updated as I go along… It’s been fun so far and I’m excited about what’s to come.